The Origins of 25 Monsters, Ghosts, and Spooky Things

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Though dressing up as an angel is acceptable, it’s ghouls and goblins that truly capture our imaginations during the Halloween season. As lit jack-o’-lanterns beckon and monsters lurk in the shadows, we explore the origins of 25 frightful things that go bump—or boo—in the night.

1. JACK-O’-LANTERNS

Two carved pumpkins set against a background of glowing woods
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The name “jack-o’-lantern” comes from an Irish myth, in which a man called Stingy Jack tricks the Devil and ends up condemned to walk the earth, unable to get into heaven or hell. According to the tale, the original lantern was a carved-out turnip Jack used to light his way as he wandered in the dark. When Irish immigrants brought this story to America, they discovered that pumpkins, native to their new home, made an even spookier candle-holder.

2. ZOMBIES

Three zombies reaching for the viewer against a stormy sky
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The flesh-eating creatures of movies galore are Haitian in origin—animated corpses raised by Voodoo priests, called bokors. Once reanimated, the zombies would remain under the control of the bokor and do their bidding. The creatures first entered widespread popular culture in the 1929 book The Magic Island by William Seabrook and three years later in the film White Zombie, though our modern zombies have come to be associated more with plagues and viruses than sorcery.

3. CRYSTAL BALLS

A female fortune-teller with gold headdress and her arms raised near a glowing crystal ball
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A fortune-teller’s staple, crystal balls may have been described by Pliny the Elder in the 1st century. In one chapter of his Natural History, he discusses magic performed with water, balls, and all sorts of other tools. Some scholars have associated these practices with the Druids, which Pliny also discusses. It's said that Druids would employ a procedure known as “scrying,” in which they stared into the reflective surfaces of mirrors, water, and, yes, crystals, to gain insight.

4. MUMMIES

A man dressed up as a mummy and reaching upwards
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In ancient Egypt, mummification was a type of body preservation thought to be developed by people looking to mimic the way the desert kept bodies from decaying. As the popularity of all things Egyptian skyrocketed in Europe during the 19th century, the mummy and its supposed curse became a standard horror trope, appearing in stories by authors such as Bram Stoker, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and even Louisa May Alcott.

5. FRIDAY THE 13TH

The number thirteen on a street placard
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So many of us fear the number 13 that there’s a word for it: triskaidekaphobia. The superstitions surrounding Friday the 13th, however, are less concrete. One theory traces it to the Last Supper, attended by 12 apostles and Jesus, and the fact that the crucifixion traditionally took place on a Friday. The combined fear of Fridays and the number 13, however, didn’t really take hold until the early 20th century, when Thomas Lawson published a book called (surprise) Friday, the Thirteenth.

6. TROLLS

A grinning troll-like woman painted in dark green
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Trolls come from Norse mythology, and are prevalent in folklore throughout Scandinavia. They generally live in caves or around other rocky formations, and can be either giant or quite small. Paleoanthropologists like Björn Kurtén have argued that the troll mythos comes from passed-down tales of when our Cro-Magnon ancestors met Neanderthals thousands of years ago.

7. HEADLESS HORSEMAN

Th legend of Sleepy Hollow headless horseman stamp
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In Irish legends, the dullahan is a frightening being indeed: sitting upon a horse, the man rides with his head held high in his hand so that he may scan his surroundings. If that wasn’t creepy enough, don’t worry. The dullahan also carries a whip made out of a human spine. Be careful if he stops and says your name—you’ll die instantly.

8. BIGFOOT

Woodsy trails marked with a
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Bigfoot is a large, furry, ape-like creature that predominantly lives in the mountains and forests of the Pacific Northwest—though he has also been spotted throughout the rest of North America. While many Bigfoot sightings are said to be hoaxes, it’s believed that Bigfoot shares an origin story with other similar creatures, like the Abominable Snowman: Humans, it turns out, have a tendency to make up giant, wild, ape-like creatures that live at the edges of civilization. Similar creatures are found in the First Nations myths of British Columbia, where some say the Sasquatch was a figure meant to keep children from misbehaving.

9. VAMPIRES

A dramatic male vampire in a velvet cape baring his teeth
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Vampires entered modern society through the publication of John Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). Though vampire-like creatures are present in the mythologies of many cultures, it was literature that began to shape their traits into the iconic ones we know today. The vampires of Eastern Europe, for example, were not pale and thin, but ruddy and bloated.

10. TRICK-OR-TREATING

Two adorable blond little girls dressed up like witches for Halloween and grinning, one with a pumpkin
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Mumming, or going around the neighborhood in costume and saying specific lines in exchange for food, has been a staple of certain holidays since the Middle Ages. This custom first applied to Halloween in 16th century Scotland, when it was called “guising.” The term “trick-or-treat” wasn’t used until the 1930s, and is decidedly American.

11. THE KRAKEN

A many-armed kraken attacks an older ship
Wikimedia // Public Domain

According to Nordic folklore, the Kraken was a giant sea monster that could devour a ship and its entire crew in one swallow. The legend likely has its origins in sailors’ encounters with giant squid—reaching up to 60 feet in length, they might not be monsters, but they’re pretty close.

12. FLYING BROOMSTICKS

A young woman riding a broom
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OK, this one is weird. Broomsticks became associated with flying because of witches’ “flying ointment,” a potion made up of various hallucinogens, like the fungus ergot that grew on rye. Since ingesting the ointment orally led to a host of unpleasant side effects, witches chasing a high supposedly began to administer it through, well, other areas. Apparently, it felt like flying.

13. THE LOCH NESS MONSTER

A scaly Loch Ness monster with a Scottish castle in the background
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Arguably the world’s most famous sea monster, Nessie is said to inhabit Loch Ness in Scotland. Though the earliest sighting was reported in the 6th century, and told of an Irish monk's encounter with a “water beast,” it was a 1934 photograph that brought international attention to Loch Ness. Known as the “surgeon’s photograph” after the London doctor who took it, the image has since been exposed as a hoax.

14. DRAGONS

A stone dragon
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Because cultures across the world have myths featuring dragons, it’s likely the beasts have their origins in a much more mundane creature. One theory holds that dinosaur fossils, like those of the stegosaurus, were thought to be the remains of dragons. Anthropologist David E. Jones has another theory. In his book An Instinct for Dragons, Jones argues that a fear of large predators is inherent to the human mind.

15. MERMAIDS AND MERMEN

A mermaid looking contemplative on the shore
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Half-human and half-fish, mermaids exist in multiple mythologies as both beautiful maidens and frightening monsters. One of the earliest examples of such a hybrid are the apkallu of Babylonian mythology, sages associated with the god Ea that were depicted as half-man, half-fish.

16. CHUPACABRA

An orange-furred, toothy, chupacabra-like creature
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The well-named chupacabra, which literally means “goat-sucker,” goes back to the '90s in Puerto Rico, when eight sheep were found dead and entirely drained of blood. Since then, it has been a popular, ahem, scapegoat whenever livestock are suspiciously harmed. Theories hold that mange-infected dogs and coyotes, not chupacabras, committed the actual crimes.

17. MAGIC WANDS

An enchanting-looking magic wand with a green glow around it as if casting magic
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Ancient Egyptian practitioners of magic used metal or ivory wands decorated with images of deities. In Homer’s The Odyssey, written in the 8th century BCE, the sorceress Circe turns men into pigs through the use of a magic wand.

18. BLOODY MARY

A scary-looking woman covered in blood with a glowing candle in front of her
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Chanting “Bloody Mary” in front of the mirror of a dark bathroom is a sleepover tradition with debatable origins. The titular Mary could be English Queen Mary I, who accused many Protestants of heresy and sealed their fate, earning her the nickname “Bloody Mary.” Given the common name, however, it’s possible Mary doesn’t refer to anyone at all—she’s scary either way!

19. WEREWOLF

A scary-looking Bloody Mary type figure
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The werewolf, whether a human who shifts into a wolf or a human/wolf hybrid, was first mentioned in The Epic of Gilgamesh, which tells of a woman who turned a previous lover into a wolf. Another popular origin story is the Greek myth of Lycaon, whom Zeus turned into a wolf in a fit of rage. A synonym for werewolf is, of course, lycanthrope.

20. BANSHEE

A screaming witchy-looking woman in the fog
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Female spirits from Irish mythology, banshees foretell death by screaming or wailing. They can appear as young maidens or old hags, and usually have unkempt hair and green or red clothing. Their name, ben side in Old Irish, literally means "female fairy" or "female elf."

21. KODAMA

Kodama are Japanese tree spirits. According to legend, they live in trees that are over 100 years old; in some stories, they reside in specific trees, but in others, they can move throughout the forest. Introduced to the West through the Studio Ghibli film Princess Mononoke, their legend goes further back—the Kojiki, or “Records of Ancient Matters,” the oldest surviving Japanese book, mentions something similar.

22. POLTERGEIST

A housewife being scared by a ghost in an old black-and-white photo
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Poltergeist, which means “noisy ghost” in German, is usually a spirit that haunts a person rather than a location. They usually express their anger through the disruption of the household: slamming doors, moving chairs and other objects, and even pinching people. The first investigated cases of poltergeists happened in Scotland and England in the late 1600s, and involved enchanted drums, beggars seeking revenge, and devil worship. The famous movie, however, didn't come out until 1982.

23. DYBBUK

A couple are terrified by a spectral apparition
Hulton Archive/Stringer/Getty Images

A dybbuk is a malevolent spirit from Jewish mythology that possesses its human host—the name comes from a Hebrew word meaning “to cling.” Said to be the soul of a dead person, the dybbuk first appeared in 16th century literature before frightening us in films like 2009’s The Unborn and 2012’s The Possession.

24. “BOO”

An illustration of a ghost saying boo
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The oldest record in the OED for the modern spelling of boo is found in the writing of two 18th-century Scots—Gilbert Crokatt and John Monroe, who said it was “used in the north of Scotland to frighten crying children.” It has since spread far and wide.

25. RAZORS IN CANDY BARS

Razors embedded in two candy apples
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Poisoned candy, chocolate bars with needles inside, and even treats containing razor blades have been used to scare children around Halloween since the mid-1900s—the myth gained traction through news segments, advice columns like Dear Abby, and word of mouth. The good news is that fear of candy-tampering is almost entirely unfounded: Sociologist Joel Best investigated and discovered only instances of adults messing with candy to try and get money, or children doing the same for attention.

10 Graveside Traditions at Famous Tombs

Kisses and graffiti left at Oscar Wilde's tomb in Paris
Kisses and graffiti left at Oscar Wilde's tomb in Paris
Chris barker, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (cropped)

Whether it's leaving playing cards or bullets, or drinking a cognac toast, there are a variety of traditional ways to pay tribute at famous tombs. We've rounded up some of the most fascinating.

1. Kisses at Oscar Wilde's Grave

Oscar Wilde is known for a variety of supposed deathbed utterances in keeping with his famous wit, the most well-known of which goes something like: "That wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. Either it goes, or I do." (Wilde might have said it, but not on his deathbed.)

After the famously scandalous poet's death in 1900, his grave became almost as well-known as he was. Wilde was initially buried at the Bagneux Cemetery southwest of Paris, but was later exhumed and transferred to the famous Parisian cemetery Père Lachaise. In 1914, the grave was graced by a gigantic stylized angel carved by sculptor Jacob Epstein. Legend has it the sculpture originally came complete with a set of enormous genitals, which the cemetery's conservator ordered removed, then used as a paperweight in his office.

For at least a decade, visitors showed their admiration for Wilde by covering his grave in lipstick kisses, despite the threat of a fine for damaging a historic monument. In 2011, authorities at Père Lachaise installed a protective glass barrier that prevents such an up-close-and-personal tribute.

2. Metro Tickets at Jean Paul Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir's Grave

The grave of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, decorated with flowers and metro tickets
The grave of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, decorated with flowers and metro tickets
generalising, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The grave of Jean Paul Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir in the Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris is also sometimes covered in lipstick kisses, but some devotees leave a more unique offering: Metro tickets. The reasons are somewhat obscure. Some say it relates to a group of French Maoists that Sartre supported who gave away free Metro tickets during a fare hike in the 1960s, while others guess it’s connected to the Boulevard Voltaire riots, in which people died trying to get into a closed metro station. Some fans also leave Metro tickets on Serge Gainsbourg's grave, a tribute to his song "Les Poinçonneur des Lilas” ("The Ticket Puncher of Lilas").

3. Potatoes at Frederick the Great's Grave

Frederick the Great's grave, with potatoes
Frederick the Great's grave, with potatoes
threefishsleeping, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Frederick the Great asked for a simple burial on the terrace of his summer palace in Potsdam, next to the burial site of his beloved greyhounds, writing: “I have lived as a philosopher and wish to be buried as such, without circumstance, without solemn pomp or parade.”

But his successor, Frederick William II, buried the former Prussian king in the Potsdam Garrison Church, which he considered a more appropriate resting place. Frederick the Great didn’t rest in peace, however—Hitler dug up his coffin and stashed it in a salt mine, for one thing. After several reburials, it wasn’t until 1991 that Frederick the Great got his wish thanks to Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Today, well-wishers leave potatoes on his grave because he was known for encouraging the crop’s cultivation. The king issued 15 decrees concerning potatoes, trying to overcome cultural barriers to their use.

4. Bullets on Wyatt Earp's Grave

Colma, California, is home to far more dead people than living—it's where most of San Francisco’s deceased were moved when real estate there became too expensive for cemeteries. But Wyatt Earp is Colma's most famous resident, living or dead. His ashes rest at the Hills of Eternity Memorial Park, a Jewish cemetery (Earp wasn't Jewish, but his wife was). According to cemetery author and blogger Loren Rhoads, people often leave bullets on the grave (among other items) in memory of the way the West was won.

5. Playing Cards at Harry Houdini's Grave

Playing cards near a statue at Houdini's grave in Queens
Playing cards near a statue at Houdini's grave in Queens
Bess Lovejoy

The great magician’s grave in a forlorn corner of Machpelah Cemetery in Queens (part of the vast Brooklyn-Queens cemetery belt) is associated with several traditions. One of the earliest is the Broken Wand Ceremony, performed by members of the Society of American Magicians when a member dies. The first such ceremony was performed at Houdini's grave in 1926, the year of his death, and repeated on the anniversary of his death each year. (The large crowds attending the ceremony in later years forced a move from Houdini's death date, which is Halloween, to November.) Today, people leave an assortment of offerings on Houdini’s grave, frequently including playing cards—a reference to the magician’s classic tools of the trade.

6. Three XS at Marie Laveau's Tomb

The reputed tomb of Marie Laveau at St. Louis Cemetery, marked with Xs
The reputed tomb of Marie Laveau at St. Louis Cemetery, marked with Xs
Wally Gobetz, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Famed "Voodoo Queen" Marie Laveau is buried in arguably the oldest and most famous cemetery in New Orleans, St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. (Or she's said to be, anyway—some dispute surrounds her actual burial spot.) For years, visitors hoping to earn Marie's supernatural assistance would mark three large Xs on her mausoleum. Some also knocked three times on her crypt as a request for her help. However, a 2014 restoration of her tomb removed the Xs, and there's a substantial fine now in place for anyone who writes on her grave.

7. Toe Shoes at Sergei Diaghilev's Grave

Sergei Diaghilev, founder of the enormously influential dance troupe Ballets Russes, is buried in Italy on the island of San Michele (sometimes called Venice's "Island of the Dead"). According to Rhoads, there's a tradition of placing toe shoes on his grave.

8. "Indecent Rubbing" at Victor Noir's Grave

Victor Noir's grave at Père Lachaise in Paris
Victor Noir's grave at Père Lachaise in Paris
Chupacabra Viranesque, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Poor Victor Noir's grave at Père Lachaise is home to one of the more lascivious cemetery traditions. Noir was a journalist who died in an 1870 duel, and later became a hero to Napoleon III's opponents. But his life story seemingly has little to do with the tradition invented by a tour guide in the 1970s, who said that rubbing the lump in the trousers on Noir's memorial would bring luck in love. Tourists were also told to kiss Noir's lips, and leave flowers in his hat. Decades of tourists have done the same, even though in 2004 the city briefly erected a fence around the statue and a sign prohibiting "indecent rubbing."

9. The Poe Toaster at Edgar Allan Poe's Grave

No round-up of famous graveside traditions would be complete without a mention of the Poe Toaster. Since at least the 1940s, a mysterious figure has stolen into the Westminster Presbyterian Church cemetery where Edgar Allan Poe is buried, gone to the site of his original grave, poured out a cognac toast, and left three red roses. The identity of the Poe Toaster has long been a secret, though one 92-year-old came forward in 2007 claiming to be the culprit. The last confirmed visit by the Toaster was in 2009, although the Maryland Historical Society has collaborated with Poe Baltimore and Westminster Burying Grounds to hold a competition to find the next one.

10. Candlelight Processions for Elvis Presley at Graceland

For truly devoted Elvis fans, the highlight of the year is “Death Week”—seven days of events leading up the anniversary of Elvis’s demise (Elvis Presley Enterprises prefers the term “Elvis Week”). After concerts, art exhibits, and charity runs, the week culminates in a candlelit procession that begins at dusk on August 15, the day before the anniversary of Elvis’s death. Tens of thousands of people carrying lighted tapers climb the hill to Graceland, where they each spend a few moments before Elvis’s grave near the reflecting pool. The proceedings go on all night, and it’s said that no other event brings together so many Americans in mourning year after year.

This list was first published in 2015.

This 3D-Printed Sushi is Customized For You Based on the Biological Sample You Send In

Open Meals
Open Meals

Many high-end restaurants require guests to make a reservation before they dine. At Sushi Singularity in Tokyo, diners will be asked to send fecal samples to achieve the ideal experience. As designboom reports, the new sushi restaurant from Open Meals creates custom sushi recipes to fit each customer's nutritional needs.

Open Meals is known for its experimental food projects, like the "sushi teleportation" concept, which has robotic arms serving up sushi in the form of 3D-printed cubes. This upcoming venture takes the idea of a futuristic sushi restaurant to new extremes.

Guests who plan on dining at Sushi Singularity will receive a health test kit in the mail, with vials for collecting biological materials like urine, saliva, and feces. After the kit is sent back to the sushi restaurant, the customer's genome and nutritional status will be analyzed and made into a "Health ID." Using that information, Sushi Singularity builds personalized sushi recipes, optimizing ingredients with the nutrients the guest needs most. The restaurant uses a machine to inject raw vitamins and minerals directly into the food.

To make things even more dystopian, all the sushi at Sushi Singularity will be produced by a 3D-printer with giant robotic arms. The menu items make the most of the technology; a cell-cultured tuna in a lattice structure, powdered uni hardened with a CO2 laser, and a highly detailed model of a Japanese castle made from flash-frozen squid are a few of the sushi concepts Open Meals has shared.

The company plans to launch Sushi Singularity in Tokyo some time in 2020. Theirs won't be the first sushi robots to roll out in Japan: The food delivery service Ride On Express debuted sushi delivery robots in the country in 2017.

[h/t designboom]

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